MAREN MORRIS interview – Evening Standard, 24 May 2019

Backstage in Hamburg’s Gruenspan venue, Maren Morris only needs a change of clothes, a shot of tequila and a “really inappropriate chant” with her five-piece band before she’s ready to go out and sing. It’s a relatively low-key club show this evening, aside from a bubble shower at the end – she says on stage that she hadn’t even realised she had fans in Germany – but in the UK, the 29-year-old Texan has earned a headline show at the Albert Hall next week thanks to her canny connecting of the worlds of country and pop music.

“I get as much out of Beyonce and Taylor Swift as I do Patty Griffin or Lori McKenna. Both sides of my brain are well represented on this tour,” she tells me, peering out from beneath false eyelashes large enough to generate a stiff breeze in her dressing room. She found the centre ground most successfully on The Middle, an appropriately titled dance pop song credited to the Russian DJ Zedd. It spent five weeks in our top 10 last year, went triple platinum in the US and earned three Grammy nominations, including Song of the Year, in February.

The track’s convoluted gestation was a surprise to Morris, who had spent five years in traditional Nashville as a songwriter for the likes of Kelly Clarkson and Tim McGraw, before stepping out as a major label solo artist. “When I was a writer, you write specifically for the artist you’re in the room with. Pop is a very different game. The stakes are so much higher. The reach of that music is so much wider than country, so it’s a lot more competitive,” she says.

She was unaware, when she submitted her vocal for The Middle, that numerous more established singers than her had also had a stab at it. Camila Cabello, Demi Lovato and Carly Rae Jepsen were among around a dozen female vocalists under consideration. The song itself had seven different writers, a sign that it was shaping up either to be a blockbuster or an unholy mess. Morris was convinced it was the former.

“I’d had a few pop, EDM-style songs sent to me before from some big name artists, who wanted my voice on them or for me to finish writing them, but none of them struck me the way that The Middle did,” she says. “Within 10 seconds of hearing it, I thought, ‘Holy shit, this is massive.’ But none of us predicted how massive it would become. We were all a little floored.”

Zedd didn’t care that he could have had a bigger star out front. “I’ll use artists that are not as well known if they do a beter job of singing the song because that’s the only thing that matters to me,” he told me when we met last year. “I don’t do myself a favour by putting a big name on a record if the big name doesn’t deliver the emotion I want from the song.”

The Middle’s mainstream success increased brand recognition for her future work, but didn’t persuade her to leave country music behind. At the Grammys she could be found on stage singing as part of a trio with Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton. “She’s exactly how you imagine her to be, which is rarely the case with huge stars,” Morris says of the country legend. “She was so lovely, so hilarious. She immediately put her arm around me when we met.”

Then, in March, came her second album, titled simply Girl. It has pop elements, touching on modern R&B on the sultry RSVP, containing three collaborations with Adele’s Midas touch co-writer Greg Kurstin, and packed with zingy melodies that enter your head and claim squatter’s rights. At the same time, the bouncing guitar line of Feels and the lines about “liquor” and “a tank o’ gas” on All My Favorite People are pure country.

“I’ll always be rooted in country music. Being from Texas, it’s in my blood. When I sing, there’s a twang there that I can’t hide,” she says. “But I am going to write and sing whatever I want. It doesn’t need to be as defined as it used to be. People listen to music in such an open way now.”

Her latest music shows a mix of newfound confidence and newly revealed vulnerability. The title of her debut album in 2016, Hero, was about putting on a front, she says now. “That whole album was about confidence and sass and saying what I thought my generation wanted to hear,” she says. “Girl is a far more vulnerable take on the last few years of my life. I’m not invincible. Things have transpired.”

Among the life-changing events that she was moved to sing about, she includes her marriage last year to her fellow musician Ryan Hurd. They share a manager, who tries to make sure the couple’s diaries allow them to either be on tour or at home in Nashville at the same time. Her song To Hell & Back, a ballad that expresses warmer sentiments than that title suggests, is about her husband.

In stark contrast, there were the shootings at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas on October 1 2017, at which a gunman on his hotel balcony killed 58 people and injured hundreds more – the worst mass shooting in US history. Morris had performed at the festival the night before. Immediately afterwards she released a song she had written in 2015 in response to the church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina. Dear Hate contains the line, “I hate to tell you love’s gonna conquer all,” and raised funds for the Music City Cares fund for victims in Las Vegas.

As a musician from the country world who has said, “Can we have a conversation about common-sense gun reform?” and who, on her breakthrough single My Church, sang about blasting music in her car being better than the Sunday morning service, she isn’t afraid to stand apart from the majority. Her new song Flavor is about having the confidence to express strong opinions. Its line, “Shut up and sing? Well hell no, I won’t,” is a reference to insults levelled at Dallas country trio The Dixie Chicks in 2003, who faced a huge backlash for saying they were ashamed that President George W Bush was from Texas.

“People used to say your career was going to be ‘Dixie Chicked’, but artists are becoming so drained from the day in, day out reality of things that they are getting braver about their opinions,” she says. “It’s sad when people’s careers are held hostage just because they have an opinion that differs from someone else’s. I don’t even let that shit bother me any more. I’m a human being that cares about the environment that we live in. I don’t have children but I want to someday, and would like them to live in a world that’s better than I’ve found it. I would like to be a representative for my genre that is an intelligent and positive one. If something pisses me off enough, I like to speak out.”

That includes criticising the male-dominant set-up of country music today, which she calls “a drought of women”. Appealing as pop can look, she wants to keep at least one foot in country, representing her gender by choosing only female support acts on her 2019 tour, which continues until November. It’s girl power, Texas style, and one way or another, we’ll be hearing a lot more of her.

Girl is out now on Columbia. May 31, Royal Albert Hall, SW7. royalalberthall.com

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